“It is not a fish until it is on the bank.” ~ Irish Proverb
My poor nephew Todd—at every holiday gathering he unloads stories of the past season’s angling trips. The problem is they’re always about catching big bass or pike and I always rudely interrupt him halfway through by blurting out “so when are you going to catch a real fish?”
My father brought me up in a traditional sense: always work hard, be honest with others, and to know that the only valid fish to catch is a trout. There’s something to be said about casting a fly for trout. He also added that if you hook a trout with a fly, then all the better. Yes, bass or pike fishing is a lot of fun. But the species in no way represents, at least to me, the essence of true wilderness values. A speckled trout, or what some call a “brookie,” clearly defines it. The moment water becomes tainted, or a road creates easy access, then the trout simply disappear, along with what they represent.
As a child, the act of fishing itself was my doorway to time spent outdoors and even at a young age I knew the philosophy behind the idea that actually catching the fish was anti-climactic. The exciting part was trying to catch a fish; and the more difficult the species was to catch, then the more solid the memory of the event and the more respect you gave to the species itself. Trout were always the hardest species to angle for.
The early years were spent just dangling a worm in a local creek. It wasn’t until my pre-teens that my father took me to a bona fide trout stream with deep pools and oxygen-rich rapids to cast a small spinner. He’d also book us a fishing lodge in Northeastern Ontario in early summer. Gowganda’s Auld Reekie Lodge and New Liskeard’s Garden Island Lodge on Temagami Lake were a couple of our favourites. We always concentrated on the back brook trout lakes and streams. Those moments shared together, father and son, I’ll cherish forever.
It was on my sixteenth birthday that my father gave me a fly rod. To be honest, though, it wasn’t until I reached the age of twenty-one that I gave the art of fly-fishing a decent try.
I chose to be alone. The reason was innocent enough. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want anyone to see how incompetent I was. I was quite okay with that. I just didn’t want anyone to label me a fishing snob when I obviously wasn’t. That was left for the guys clad in hip waders and floppy fedoras. I was wearing sneakers and a baseball cap. The movie A River Runs Through It hadn’t been released yet but what had been labeled as the Zen of fly-fishing was an active trend at the time.
And it’s a good thing I had privacy too. My first attempt at thrusting the floating line back and forth through the air was totally embarrassing, with it whirling out-of-control around my head and the fly catching up on tree branches more often than not. If people were around, they would have been hooked for sure. But I persisted, believing that the more difficult the method, the bigger the trophy trout would be.
By the end of the practice run I was beginning to get the hang of it. Fly fishing is a lot like golf. The more you try, the worse you get. But the moment you give up and don’t really care if you hit the darn ball or not, you get a hole-in-one. By then you’ve figured out the groove. Timing and feel are the two crucial elements. The line is flung behind you and if you abruptly stop the rod at the appropriate moment, it just feels right. The line straightens out and you sense a slight tug of the tension, which travels back down to your grip. It’s at this particular moment that you initiate the forward cast—making the fly land on the water like nature intended it to be.
The last time I talked to my nephew about fly-fishing was at my father’s funeral. Todd had been away fishing in Northeastern Ontario, at some random trout lake in Temagami, and came home for the service. After spinning a few tales, trying to make light of the situation at hand, Todd asked if he could place something in my father’s casket. I said yes and added that he’d appreciate the gesture from his nephew.
It was a trout fly that Todd gave my father, not a bass jig or pike spoon. We hugged after he had said his prayers and I whispered, “I guess you went on a real fishing trip while you were in the north.” Todd smiled and quite enthusiastically replied, “I caught speckles the size of champagne bottles, Uncle Kevin. It was fantastic.”
Obviously my nephew made good use of the gift my father gave him for his birthday before he died—it was a fly rod.
“In my family, there was no clear division between religion and fly fishing.”
-Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, 1976